Friday, 9:00am
2 September 2016

Optimistic tales and theories

The ICON illustration conference in Texas had both practical pizzazz and academic depth. Roderick Mills, one of the speakers, reports

‘Tall Tales’, the ninth edition of the biennial ICON illustration conference was held in Austin, Texas last month, writes Roderick Mills.

Held biennially the growing conference is tapping into a wider need for illustration discourse. Where once, such conferences concentrated on professional practice – how to make a living as an illustrator – there is now a need for more critical reflection, as the nature of illustration is transforming.

Laurie Burruss and Lynda Weinman giving their talk ‘Complimentary learning: blending online and in-person’ at the ICON9 Education Symposium.


Picture of author, Roderick Mills, at the Education Symposium.


As a precursor to the main stage speakers, the first day and a half at ICON9 were given over to the Educators Symposium. Held in the main auditorium the organisers sought to acknowledge the developing area of academic research informing the profession. Speakers set out examples of the changing forms of illustration: the rise of moving image; the potential of interactivity and Virtual Reality; how illustrators are engaging subject matter and the world around them, offering a voice to communities unheard through projects with marginalised voices. There was a sense at ICON9 of a community exchanging ideas and skills, bringing together both theory and practice.

Alexandra Zsigmond, art director for the Opinion section of The New York Times, giving her talk ‘The art of art direction’.


Panel discussion with Melinda Beck, Julia Rothman and Jessica Hische.


The conference continued with much pizzazz on the main stage, a series of sign-up workshop sessions, a Roadshow for makers to sell their products, and many social opportunities for attendees to network and begin conversations. Main stage highlights included William Joyce (Moonbot Studios), James Victore, Henrik Drescher, the New York Times’s Alexandra Zsigmond on art direction and Marc Burckhardt. Jessica Hische, Melinda Beck and Julia Rothman discussed their experience as women working as illustrators. Lars Morten Refn was in conversation with Matt Bors and Steve Brodner on political satire, and Kent Bye and Ashley Pinnick discussed storytelling in the virtual world. Calvin Wong, Paul Windle and Hellen Jo explained their journeys from zines to the screen, ending on Eleanor Davis’s poetic story of image as mirror.

Eleanor Davis on the main stage giving her talk ‘Image as map, image as mirror’.


Participants at one of 30 illustration workshops at ICON9.


ICON9’s optimistic spirit was infectious: though it is not always easy to combine practitioners’ issues with theory-based discourse, the programme showed a willingness to engage in both, incorporating difficult subjects such as race and politics (with the Charlie Hebdo shootings still fresh in the memory). Illustration research has never been more relevant, with a growing international academic network for the discipline and more conferences. These include the Association of Illustrators’ own VaroomLab; Illustration Research with its upcoming symposium in Edinburgh; the annual Falmouth Illustration Forum; CONFIA in Portugal; ILUSTRAFIC in Spain; the History of Illustration project out of RISD; and MOKITA at the University of Brighton. As Alan Male argues in the Eye 92 (see ‘Ambition and illustration’), the illustrator is at the centre of an intellectual engagement with their own subject, we shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate this at such conferences as a community. I look forward to ICON10 in 2018.

Norma Jeanne Maloney giving her talk ‘The lost art of the hand-painted sign’. All images supplied by Rod Hunt and ICON9.


Roderick Mills, artist, illustrator, educator, curator, course leader BA(Hons) Illustration at University of Brighton and deputy chairman Association of Illustrators, London

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